When people think of scientists, they generally think of someone good at math, prefers an objective, logical approach to life, looks clean cut or a little nerdy and uses too many Latin words. Of all the attributes or skills that come to mind when laypeople think of a scientist, one of the last things is that of communication. In popular culture, the stereotype of the scientist is someone who is socially awkward and unable to connect with people. Good communication is pretty much the last skill that people associate with scientists. However, a great deal of a scientist’s time is spent doing just that — communicating, and if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s just how important it is for scientists and laypeople alike to engage in scientific communication.
For a student scientist, from the time you enter a research lab, you’re asked to produce proposals communicating the work you would like to do and the questions you would like to ask. Then, of course, there are the regularly scheduled meetings with your advisor to communicate how your work is going. Finally, once you reach the point where you have some answers to the questions you proposed, you are asked to communicate what you’ve done and what it means. Scientists call this “telling the story.” Telling the story is the basis of a Master’s thesis or a Doctoral dissertation. It’s what scientists do when they publish papers in scientific journals or go to conferences and give talks. In reality, scientists communicate all the time, and many of them are quite good at it.
Yet, despite this, the general public still doesn’t link communication and science. This is probably because, even though scientists are communicating all the time, they usually communicate with other scientists. Communicating with fellow scientists is an important skill set, but communicating with those outside the scientific community is just as important — and it requires some recalibration. After all, there is quite a distance between a peer-reviewed journal article and a popular press book, or even between a blog post and a tweet.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this gap, as well as the importance of closing it. With so many more people tuned into how science works in real-time, and it is increasingly evident that communication with non-scientists is one of the most valuable skills for a scientist to have. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, larger issues still loom on the horizon (climate change, for instance), and this need for good communication from scientists to laypeople is only going to increase. As Mónica I.Feliú-Mójer states in her blog post, Effective Communication, Better Science, “When scientists are able to communicate effectively beyond their peers to broader, non-scientist audiences, it builds support for science, promotes understanding of its wider relevance to society, and encourages more informed decision-making at all levels, from the government to communities to individuals. It can also make science accessible to audiences that traditionally have been excluded from the process of science. It can help make science more diverse and inclusive.”
Too often, when scientific evidence is brought forth, it is done so with the intent to prove a point, to “be right.” Being right is not the purpose of science, nor scientific communication. As Baruch Fischhoff states in the sciences of science communication, “The goal of science communication is not agreement, but fewer, better disagreements.” One idea that has suffered greatly from people insisting on “being right” is the scientific theory of evolution. From a misunderstanding of the word “theory” to theological and emotional upset, to the overprescription of antibiotics, our collective inability to communicate well around the idea of evolution has been a problem for a century and a half. This is the reason for Neil Shubins’ book Your Inner Fish, in which Shubin offers readers a chance to explore their own relationship with this complex and sometimes hard to imagine the process of evolution. One of the great things we can learn from this book is that good communication, like good science, is never really done; as the audience changes, so does the conversation. Our online lives often make the world seem too close and sometimes too small. It is the scientists that understand storytelling who will help the world stay vivid and expansive, who will help all of us to understand the importance of asking questions about that world — and then communicating what those questions taught them. In that spirit, we at bridges would like to share some of the work of our budding scientists and their communications on getting to know their inner fish.